The Romans used to say Ora et Labora, that is, you should pray, but also keep working. Do hope for the best, but also prepare for the worst. By all means buy a lottery ticket, but don’t quit your job just yet.
I am a big believer in serendipity. I think random chance plays a HUGE role in our lives (ora), but also that we can often do a lot to improve our chances of good things happening (labora). It seems common sense to at least try, doesn’t it? Just look at how the Romans prepared their orgies; yes they gathered lots of women (ora), but they also made sure to have plenty of wine around (labora).
But when I look around me, I don’t see people behaving that way. In fact, I see that most people are afraid of putting in effort and not have things turn out the way they want. They seem to want a guarantee that any work they do will be rewarded, as if life were a contract. We all have big dreams like starting a business, writing a book, becoming a porn star, whatever, but most of us are not actually doing anything that could help it become true. Instead we buy from other people’s businesses, read other people’s books and watch other people banging. And this doesn’t just apply to ambitious goals, it can also happen at a much more modest level, like a person who knows their job doesn’t make them happy but doesn’t have the courage to change, someone who would like to live off his writings but doesn’t even start by publishing a blog or that guy who doesn’t want to be single but doesn’t sign up for dating websites or does it but then doesn’t pay for premium status.
Conversely, following that same rationale, we should also try our best to protect ourselves from undesirable outcomes. But once again, when you look around, most people don’t do that. So much so, that often the Law has to force us, like getting car insurance, because otherwise most people wouldn’t do it.
Why not? Well I guess that, as in most things, the devil is in the details. And that takes us to our next point.
Ora et Labora may sound great as an inspirational motto, but we could question whether it’s worth investing a lot of effort to only marginally raise our chances of a favourable outcome, especially if that outcome is good, but not particularly fantastic.
This is what is known as upside and downside: upside is the favourable outcome and downside is the effort it requires us to put in. Upside is what we could win and downside is what we could lose.
The best businessmen and investors always try to maximise their upside AND cap their downside. That’s why top executives get paid a massive salary AND stock options AND have a golden parachute in their contracts; if they do a great job and the company thrives, they become filthy rich, but even if they screw up horribly, make the company lose money and they are fired, they still get a massive bonus (What? Did you think the rich got rich by following the same rules as normal people?). Another example, when Richard Branson launched Virgin Airlines he reached a deal with Boeing that allowed him to return the aircraft in case the business didn’t work out (what a genius, I can just imagine myself opening a restaurant and telling the guy who sells me the furniture that if things don’t go well I’ll return it in six months…).
Situations where the downside is small and the upside is large (or vice versa) are said to have an asymmetric risk profile. These are the situations that we have to keep an eye out for in life, whether to profit from a large reward from a small investment or to protect ourselves from catastrophe with just a little work.
Why are we talking about all of this? Because throughout this pandemic we have all lived through several situations with asymmetric risk profiles where, inexplicably, most people and institutions have done a little bit of ora and no labora whatsoever.
When things started to look serious, with the virus spreading all over the world like a summer hit, instead of taking a cautious approach and restricting travel and large gatherings many governments did the complete opposite; Spain kept promoting demonstrations, the UK mumbled stupidities about herd immunity, and don’t even get me started on Trump and Bolsonaro.
And at the individual level, many of us acted very similarly, not preparing for a lockdown until it was too late. Even after all we’ve been through, it seems that many people haven’t learned the lesson (particularly in America, where else?) and are happily hopping on planes to go on holiday.
Even worse, many are not protecting themselves and others by wearing face masks. WHAT THE FUCK?! When the upside is to not catch a disease that could kill you and/or your family, how can you not GLADLY accept the tiny downside of wearing a mask? I even wear gloves when I go out! I don’t even know if or how much they protect against the virus, but it requires the same effort as wearing a mask (zero) so why not?
The worst part is that, if those idiots are refusing to do something as simple as wearing a mask, even when mandated by the government, we can imagine how they will react when they are told to get an injection.
Well, I for one have learnt the lesson. When I look at the situation in America, it seems pretty clear that we are headed for another lockdown, but this time I’ve got myself a bread-making machine (also makes pizza dough and cakes) and a ton of yeast. Now I just need to figure out what to do about the kids…
Originally published at http://pandemicponderings.wordpress.com on July 25, 2020.